Two years ago, I became completely obsessed with a TV show called Babylon Berlin. This is not uncommon for me. Falling for a show and evangelizing for it with a fervor bordering on obnoxious is one of my very favorite things in life. Objects of my “Why aren’t you watching?” jeremiads have ranged from Fleabag to Halt and Catch Fire to Dickinson to the recent CBS procedural Evil. But my love for Babylon Berlin had a different tenor.
The series, whose third season just hit Netflix, is so byzantine, so chockablock with plot, so twisty and propulsive — it’s the kind of show you get to the end of, and then desperately need to talk about with every single person you see for the next week. It is the most expensive non-English-language TV production ever, it’s been sold to 100 countries, and it’s epically, outstandingly gripping. But because it’s a German show, and because it’s a hard-to-categorize mix of many genres, and because it’s gone almost entirely unpublicized in the U.S., Babylon Berlin is so unknown here that I feel like I’ve been yelling about a TV show from a different planet.
When the show landed on Netflix for the first time two years ago, I was unprepared. I had no idea what it was, and no idea how much I’d love it. Now that the third season is available to audiences outside of Germany, I will not be caught unprepared again: It is time to talk about the greatness of Babylon Berlin.
The series is a historical drama about the Weimar period of Berlin — think Cabaret, opulence, extreme poverty, avant-garde innovation, genderqueer performance, Surrealism, and the imminent pendulum swing of reactionary cultural conservatism (nationalism and Nazis). It’s a historical moment where many different kinds of thinking exist all at once, all crammed into the same growing, vibrant, unstable urban space. Babylon Berlin, which is based on a series of mystery books by Volker Kutscher, is all of those things, too. It’s first and foremost a noir, and the story begins with a detective named Gereon Rath who comes to Berlin from a more provincial part of the country so he can track down an extortion ring. He is the consummate noir detective: both an outsider and a knowing investigator, talented and haunted, capable and a touch naïve.
But rather than the specifics of Gereon’s investigation, Babylon Berlin’s world is what hooked me first. It’s beautiful and stylish and grim and dynamic. There’s an early sequence in the first episode where the show’s other main protagonist, a young woman named Lotte, gets ready for a day of work. She lives in a filthy, crowded, much-too-small apartment with her extended family. Everything is gray and brown, no one has enough food, and the clothes she puts on are just as grimy as everything else. As she walks out of her building, she pulls a grass-green cloche hat onto her head, by far the most colorful object in the whole scene. She ties a pair of hose around her neck like a scarf. Lotte is transformed, suddenly visible in the world. When she walks across a public plaza and rides a street car, her bright-green hat is a confident beacon, letting her pass in any context: a club, a police station, a professional office, a fancy shop, a pub.
Gereon arrives in Babylon Berlin like a ticking clock of plot mechanism, but he moves through the city like a blindfolded person, bumping into everything and finding his way mostly by luck. Lotte is the character with her eyes open, the one who can slip seamlessly into any new space, who understands all the unspoken stuff Gereon can only pluck at helplessly. It’s a classic storytelling pair: Gereon is the audience stand-in, the one who has no idea what’s going on and needs someone to explain everything, and Lotte is the wise and obliging guide to this new, unusual world.
But the world of the show is so complex and detailed and occasionally surreal that sometimes there’s just no easy explanation. There’s no simple way for Gereon to say, “Hey, what’s the deal with this absolutely bonkers cabaret that’s run by the mob, frequented by German nationalists, and featuring drag-king performers who bring the house down with a song about love and death?” So the show just sweeps you along anyhow, and expects that you’ll keep up with the half-dozen or so interlocking and ever-changing threads. There are stories about secret military bases and a nationalist plot to bring down a powerful democrat; there are plots about hidden histories and the buried trauma of the first World War; there are revelations about secret identities and murderous plots and several twists so dramatic and effective that they gave me the kind of vicarious adrenaline rush I usually associate with unexpected good news or just barely catching a flight.
When Babylon Berlin’s first two seasons arrived on Netflix two years ago, I’d just gotten the flu, and I spent several days in bed bingeing it. I remember finishing the second-to-last episode of the second season, one of the most upsetting, surprising, effective TV cliffhangers I’d seen. It was a quiet weekday morning, and when the episode ended, I felt like my hair was on fire. My children’s babysitter, who’d been quietly entertaining our 6-month-old, looked up to see me suddenly staggering into the room in a bathrobe, wild-eyed and gasping. I could not explain to her what was wrong with me beyond waving my hands around and hoarsely repeating, “This TV show!” Little did I realize that several hours later, when I finally pulled myself together enough to watch the last episode, I’d somehow be even more overcome.
It’s not a subtle show. No series involving a mysterious lost train full of Soviet treasure, the rise of the Nazi Party, and a would-be female police detective who moonlights as a prostitute to make ends meet ever could be subtle. And if anything, the first several episodes of season three only double down on that — to my utter delight, there’s a running plot on the set of a film, where the scenes look like a nightmarish, surrealist cross between Metropolis and Singin’ in the Rain.
Like I said, not subtle. But Babylon Berlin is an amazing show, and it’s an amazing show for right now: politically resonant but historically removed, stylistic and melodramatic, endearing, bracing, and completely absorbing. It’s about the sense that the whole world is teetering on the edge of collapse, so it’s not hard to reach for parallels to the current moment; the final shot of the new third season is one of the most accurate images I’ve seen of what it feels like to be alive in the world in 2020. But that final shot is also perfect, escapist Babylon Berlin: anxiety shaped into Surrealism, a nightmare turned fantasy.